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Which came first - the SEO or the SEM?

baby chicks and egg from digital marketing media buying agency Advantage
Digital Marketing: the Difference between SEO and SEM.

Your company is ready to leap into a digital marketing campaign, allocating dollars to supplement the TV, Radio and Print advertising you have been doing for years.

The digital media buying agency is telling you to prepare for thousands of impressions and click thru’s to your website. The digital marketing agency also included SEO and SEM in the proposal. SEO and SEM are many times said in one breath, making the business owner assume they are the same thing, since they both revolve around getting customers to your website.

seo and sem chart from digital marketing media buying agency Advantage
If we take a closer look, SEO and SEM are actually two completely different traffic builders, each with their own methods and tactics.

For many it’s like the age old question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” When you prepare for your digital marketing campaign, which is more important, SEO or SEM? The simple answer: both.

What is SEO? Think “O” for Organic.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of making your website user-friendly to the search engines.

This includes using clean code and fast loading times, since load time is a Google ranking factor.

In addition, quality criteria in the form of educational and informative content, multimedia, backlinks and social sharing, help make SEO work for your website.

SEO takes time to work. The results of SEO doesn’t happen overnight, so plan on a minimum of 6 months. Google is said to use over 200 criteria to decide which website belongs at the top of Google search results for any given keyword.

What is SEM? (Think “M” for Money.)

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) includes generating traffic from other sources through pay-per-click campaigns (PPC), social media marketing and content marketing.

The paid traffic should create more on-site interactions for Google to rate your website on. SEM will work quicker than SEO, but as you read below you will see how they depend on each other.

Real world example: what to do first

restaurant icons on ipad from digital marketing media buying agency

A local restaurant is about to release a new online menu.

Since the owners plan to also spend money on TV and Radio advertising, the first task is to get the website into as good a shape as possible. The digital marketing agency updated the content on the website’s homepage, added lots of new photos of the food and had a search optimization specialist ensure that each page loaded quickly with each menu item easy to read, photos of the food, and made an easy online order selection.

If the restaurant was considering SEM as well, they would definitely take care of the SEO details first to ensure the best possible conversion rates. After all, they didn’t advertise their brick and mortar restaurant until they were ready to open for business, the food was stocked and prepped, the employees were trained and the tables were set.

It’s the exact same principle here. Before you place paid ads online, you make sure your website is fully-optimized and looking great.

Digital Marketing checklist

As a digital advertising agency, here are some of the basic tasks we recommend and provide for each client in regards to SEO:

  • Research keywords so they are properly used on their website
  • Write content that is relevant and can be shared on social media
  • Optimize how fast content is loaded
  • Provide simple navigation throughout the website
  • Use backlinks from other sites that relate to your company
  • Create ways for visitors to spend more time on your site


As it relates to SEM, as a digital media buying agency, we recommend and provide the following basic tactics:

  • First, maximize your organic search (so the SEO does come first!)
  • Develop web pages that are sales oriented.  
  • Pay Per Click campaigns with optimized search engines
  • Paid content marketing on network platforms
  • Place ads and boost posts on your social media platforms
  • Create email marketing campaigns

Search Engine Marketing focus is to generate traffic to your website through multiple platforms, helping your company increase leads and turn over inventory and lower the cost of customer acquisition.

So relating back to our restaurant and how to maximize digital marketing and mass media budgets.

A restaurant with great food and fast and friendly service will not stay open without customers coming through the door, just like an optimized website (SEO) is no good to a company, if it's not getting customers coming to the site (SEM).